Panel lays out best practices for complying with fair housing laws

Norwich — Don't advertise a property as being ideal for families or professionals; just stick to a description of the amenities. Don't tell someone a unit isn't available when it is. Look at criminal records on a case-by-case basis rather than setting a uniform policy.

Sitting with four other panelists at the front of the meeting room, real estate attorney Yona Gregory had no shortage of directives for Realtors and landlords to avoid discriminatory housing practices.

The Eastern Connecticut Association of Realtors on Wednesday morning held a special membership meeting at the Holiday Inn Norwich to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act.

The featured speakers were Gregory, Norwich NAACP President Dianne Daniels, Norwich Department of Community Development Director Kathy Crees, Connecticut Fair Housing Center Director Erin Kemple and Connecticut Property Owners Alliance President Bob DeCosmo.

The Fair Housing Act was enacted on April 11, 1968, a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It prohibited discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin" in the rental or sale of a dwelling.

Daniels commented that zip codes matter nearly as much as genetic code in determining life expectancy.

"While we've made some progress over the last 50 years with discrimination, we still have a long way to go," DeCosmo said.

He noted that landlords can't refuse to take applicants because they have a Section 8 voucher, that there is no age at which boy and girl children must be in separate bedrooms and that maximum occupancy is based on square footage, not number of rooms.

Kemple spoke about the Connecticut Fair Housing Center's tests to ensure Realtors are compliant with fair housing laws.

In one case, the center sent 17 African-Americans who were prequalified and had good credit into a real estate agency, and they were steered away from a mostly white neighborhood. But when 20 white people with poor credit went in, Kemple said, they were basically told of living in the neighborhood, "Sure, go right ahead."

"It's not about money, it's not about credit scores, it's really about the color of your skin," she said.

Kemple indicated she has no sympathy toward people who blame ignorance of fair housing regulations. She rhetorically asked, "Does the IRS tell you how to pay your taxes? Does the police department come to your house to tell you a stop sign means come to full stop and not roll through?"

Gregory agreed, saying it's the responsibility of landlords to educate themselves.

She spoke about why real estate agents and landlords should care about fair housing not only from a moral perspective, but also from legal and financial perspectives.

There was the case of the Realtor and landlord who denied a Section 8 recipient in Danbury last year, and each settled out of court for $25,000, Gregory said. There was the woman who got a $180,000 settlement after she was rejected for writing on her application that she doesn't have a vehicle.

Crees cited impediments to fair housing, such as real estate practices that direct only whites to all-white neighborhoods, lack of first-time homebuyer opportunities, and developers not marketing according to fair housing practices.

Looking out across the room of mostly white real estate agents, she also commented, "I think we need to do a better job of marketing this career to people of different ethnicities and colors."

e.moser@theday.com

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